A comedian no more


For Ukraine’s president-elect Volodymyr Zelensky the laughter stops now. This popular TV comedian who shot to fame playing a fictional president now has the job for real. Moreover, he won Sunday’s election with an astonishing 73 percent of the popular vote. If he is wise, he probably already realizes that having such a massive proportion of the electorate place their faith in him is no laughing matter.

There can be no doubt that what the voters rejected was the payola, corruption and cronyism that has deformed Ukrainian politics since the country left the former Soviet Union in 1991. Zelensky’s win was surely based on the belief that he could reprise his TV role in the series “Servant of the People” where he played an honest president who clamped down on a deeply criminal system.

The outgoing president Petro Poroshenko was himself a member of the oligarch class whose plunder of the country’s resources and crony-capitalism have prevented Ukraine from establishing itself as the prosperous nation that it should be, with a substantial agricultural and mineral sector. Poroshenko was elected following Ukraine’s second popular revolution which led to the ouster of the pro-Russian Viktor Yushchenko. This triggered Vladimir Putin’s seizure of the Crimea and the invasion of the east of the country in support of Russian separatists.

Poroshenko’s deal with the IMF introduced unpopular price hikes but there was general approval for his plans to expand a free trade agreement with the EU into full membership, the negotiations for which are due to start next year. But this February a corruption scandal broke over arms procurement by the Defense Ministry in which the son of a Poroshenko ally is alleged to have pocketed a handsome commission.

Zelensky’s political program has been little explained. But even as he puts his administration together, an aide announced that parliament was going to be asked to vote away its immunity from criminal prosecution. Government accounts are also going to be made public, starting with those of the Defense Ministry.

Zelensky has also said that he plans to open peace talks “in good faith” with the Putin Kremlin. On the face of it, this is early evidence of the new president’s political naivety. “Good faith” is exactly what Vladimir Putin does not do. Moscow has no interest in a stable and economically independent Ukraine, still less a neighbor who wants to become part of the EU and even worse, NATO. The Kremlin’s considerable power and influence has been deployed to foster bad governance and encourage the sort of selfish plunder by a powerful Ukrainian elite to which Russia itself is no stranger.

It can be expected that Russian agents and their bugs have thoroughly penetrated Ukrainian officialdom. They may even now be listening in on Zelensky’s discussions with his aides. Moreover, the new administration must work with a widely complacent and corrupt civil service who will seek to obstruct change at every corner. The new president will need loyal and experienced advisers to overcome such challenges. The task he faces is every bit as monumental as the size of the popular vote that gave it to him. Trying to turn around the economy, drive through transparency and cope with the insidious and dangerous threats from Moscow are all going to prove no joke for President Volodymyr Zelensky.